Newly reinstalled as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has party reform as one of his top priorities.
So far he has announced measures to clean up the tainted NSW Branch and to give branch members a say in electing the federal parliamentary leader.
Giving branch members 50 per cent of the vote in leadership contests will greatly reduce the power of a handful of senior union officials and factional leaders in the caucus.
It is the biggest change in 50 years, since Whitlam, and probably the biggest change since federation when a national ALP was first put together from various state branches.
Yet Rudd’s current proposals lag behind the changes being proposed for the ALP’s sister party in Britain by its Opposition Leader, Ed Miliband.
Miliband’s reforms would see non-party members voting in pre-selections and would end the guaranteed vote percentage allocated to unions in party ballots, currently in Australia this amounts to 50 per cent of the votes at state conferences.
Miliband, like Rudd, believes the reforms are required to reconnect with the party’s (changing) electoral base and to re-invigorate the party’s membership.
During the 1990s union membership declined dramatically in Australia and ALP membership declined even faster, with hundreds of local branches across the country shutting up shop.
The problem for the ALP is that these changes have concentrated power in the hands of a few dozen union officials and factional heavies.
Put bluntly a party created in the 1890s by unions, controlled by unions and for the benefit of unions is just not relevant to vast sections of the modern Australian electorate.
Recent savage defeats in NSW and Queensland, and the prospect of a defeat federally, make the problem more urgent than ever before.
During the past 50 years, the ALP has comeback from electoral defeats before by grafting an appealing leadership on top of an anachronistic organisational structure.
From Whitlam and Hawke to Dunstan, Wran, Carr and Beattie, the ALP was blessed with several generations of real leadership talent.
That sort of talent, in those quantities, now seems a distant dream.
The ALP’s pre-selection processes are just not working anymore, they favour officials from affiliated unions, political advisers and party officials to the exclusion of just about everyone else.
The ALP’s great leaders in the past few decades have all had broader life experience and an ability to connect with people outside the unions-party bubble.
Paul Keating used to say that the best political training was asking ordinary branch members for a vote.
That’s how you used to learn how voters think and what really motivates them.
Not anymore, most candidates are now selected through complex factional deals, often with help from the party’s state and national executives.
Prime Minister Rudd has long been the party’s outsider candidate.
Rudd has no deep factional or union connections or backing.
Rudd’s claim to leadership has always been centred on his popularity in the broader electorate.
A successful outsider candidate for party leadership is a novelty in Australia.
But for Democrat presidential candidates in the USA, it has become the rule than the exception.
Carter, Clinton and Obama, the last three Democrat presidents, all ran against the party establishment and won.
They could do so because of the USA’s primary system, where ordinary voters have a say in choosing the party’s candidates.
Reflecting their popularity, primaries have expanded in the USA to become more inclusive over time,
Many US states are now moving to ‘open’ primaries where voters can participate in the selection of candidates even if they are not registered as supporters of that party.
It may be that part of Rudd’s electoral popularity is the sense many voters seem to have that he is not beholden to unions and factions.
Many voters seem to have a sense that Rudd is their candidate, torn down in June 2010 by the boys from old labour.
In Australia, primaries offer the ALP a chance to engage with a changed electorate.
Up to the 1970s, the Australian workforce was predominantly unionised, blue-collar and male.
Even the typical union member these days is a female, university-educated professional working in the community services sector.
What’s more the ALP has to appeal to a large number of young people who don’t understand unions and don’t find them appealing.
Many of the people who were once attracted to the party of Whitlam now vote for the Greens.
And today’s blue-collar worker is likely to be self-employed tradie with concerns about business conditions and small business regulation.
The ALP’s problem today is similar to that which faced Menzies in the 1940s.
Menzies created the modern Liberal Party by reaching out beyond warring big business factions to a whole raft of middle class community-based organisations.
Famously, he used the term ‘the forgotten people’ to characterise this re-building and re-connecting exercise.
The ALP needs a leader that can do a Menzies and reconnect the labor party with its own forgotten people.
Rudd would like to be that leader.
If Rudd fails, the ALP will have to find someone else to re-create the ALP as a modern centre-left party.
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